How to work with a reporter who’s (playing) dumb

Working with a journalist who just isn’t hoisting it aboard? Maybe he’s faking it—or maybe he truly doesn’t get it. Here’s how to find out and respond.


I regularly hear clients tell me that a reporter they have to work with is stupid.

Are they really dumb, or just playing “dumb” to get more information?

That’s what reader Patricia Carlson wondered after reading my article, “3 dangerous types of reporters,” which omitted the “dumb” reporter as a dangerous type. She wrote:

“I’m not sure if this would fall under a ‘dangerous reporter’ or ‘dangerous tactics’ headline, but I’ve witnessed the “playing dumb” reporter on many occasions. I’m told there are several reasons why a reporter would use this routine but I’m wondering what your take is on it?”

There are three primary reasons a reporter might come across as dumb.

1. They’re trying to get you to say more.

A reporter might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” as a device to keep you talking. As we tell our trainees, the more you say, the more you stray. If a reporter can keep you talking, he or she can increase the chances that you’re going to say something you’ll regret.

Don’t fall for it. Ask reporters what, specifically, they don’t understand and clear up those misunderstandings. But remember that your primary job isn’t to download a semester’s worth of education to the reporter; it’s to get the quotes and the storyline you want without saying something that strays from your message.

2. You’re not saying it right.

Reporters might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” as a way of getting you to speak without jargon. Technical, wonky words and ideas are difficult for the reporter to quote, because the audience probably won’t understand what you mean.

Here’s a trick from a former ABC News colleague to help you avoid jargon. She once interviewed a jargon-filled scientist. After 20 minutes, he still hadn’t said anything we could use on air.

She ended the interview, thanked him, and said, “Could I ask you a favor? My 12-year-old nephew loves science. Would you mind doing one take I could show to him?”

He agreed, and delivered a terrific answer without any jargon. That was the take we used that evening.

If you have young people in your life, run your messages by them. If they can paraphrase them back to you in their own words, you’ve successfully eliminated the jargon.

3. The reporter is actually not very bright.

A reporter might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” because he or she is just plain dumb. Every field has its dummies, and journalism is no different.

The reporter may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and his apparent stupidity may be less journalistic tactic than hereditary trait.

Still, don’t give up. That’s a great opportunity for you to practice making your message as clear as possible. As I wrote in an earlier post, “Don’t dumb it down, just make it simpler,” you should remember this admonition from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Visit the Mr. Media Training Blog to see the 21 Most Essential Media Training Links. Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog and president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training.

Topics: PR

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